A New Era in Network News

With Couric moving to CBS, Vieira takes over Today; will viewers and advertisers follow?
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After months of tedious speculation, NBC News star Katie Couric last week announced her move to CBS to anchor The CBS Evening News and work on 60 Minutes. Meredith Vieira, co-host of The View on ABC, takes Couric's place on the Today show couch.

Couric picked her 15th anniversary on Today, April 5, to reveal to viewers that she will become the first woman to solo-anchor a Big Three network nightly newscast. A day later, Vieira, surrounded by her teary View co-stars, revealed that she will join co-host Matt Lauer on the top-rated network morning show.

While the moves were hardly surprises, the news generated by these two women has sparked big changes across the television landscape. NBC must now fight to keep Today, so closely associated with Couric, on top—and highly profitable. CBS News, tarnished after Dan Rather's infamous 60 Minutes II report on President George W. Bush's military service, wants to woo younger viewers and is making the 49-year-old Couric the linchpin of its revival. Viewers and advertisers are anxiously awaiting the new assignments.

“If her ascension to anchor chair means rejuvenation in younger demos,” says John Rash, senior VP for media-buying agency Campbell Mithun, “it may open up or increase brand spending by non-traditional advertisers.”

Couric and Vieira, both network-news veterans well-regarded by audiences, will be richly compensated. CBS is paying Couric an estimated $13 million- $15 million a year for five years, about what she currently earns at Today. NBC, meanwhile, is said to be paying Vieira a multimillion-dollar package; some industry estimates value it at $10 million-$12 million a year for a four-year deal.

Both women said a desire for change drove their decisions. Said Couric on-air, “Although it may be terrifying to get out of your comfort zone, it is also exciting to start a new chapter of your life.”

Vieira said on her show, “If you are going to grow, you have to be willing to change and get off the path.”

At NBC, she will join a veteran cast of Lauer, weatherman Al Roker and news reader Ann Curry. It could be slightly awkward. Vieira moved past contenders that included Curry, contributor Natalie Morales, and Weekend Today host/Nightly News correspondent Campbell Brown. Those women are expected to continue their roles, particularly through the summer. All are expected to contribute to Today's fluffier third hour. Vieira will host only from 7 to 9 a.m., in part because her ABC/Buena Vista deal to host The View and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire has exclusivity from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., industry executives say.

For NBC, Today is a vital money machine, generating more than $250 million in profits a year, and has reigned for a decade. Today earned about $550 million in ad revenue last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, compared with second-placed Good Morning America's $347 million.

CBS plans to introduce Couric, who will also contribute about six pieces a year to 60 Minutes, slowly over the summer. As early as July, she may pop up on Evening News with interim anchor Bob Schieffer or contribute reports. “The first time you see her won't be her first broadcast,” says a news executive close to Couric. “There will be a gradual transition.”

Vieira, also a former ABC and CBS News correspondent, is expected to leave The View at the end of May sweeps. The 52-year-old is widely considered the glue at the ABC morning chat-fest, where she referees the raucous female cast—which includes Today alum Barbara Walters—and brings a calm, sensible voice to charged discussions. Her pedigree of chat and hard news is expected to make her a strong complement to the even-keeled Lauer, now the veteran at Today and arguably as popular as Couric.

After decades of consistency, Couric's appointment is the latest in a flurry of changes at the evening-anchor desks. In 2004, NBC's Tom Brokaw retired after nearly 23 years at Nightly News. The following March, CBS anchor Rather exited amid the fallout from the controversial Bush report, and, a month later, ABC's longtime anchor Peter Jennings signed off before succumbing to cancer last August.

Replacing such TV icons has been a challenge for all three networks. NBC smoothly handed off Nightly News to anchor-in-waiting Brian Williams, and, at CBS, veteran Schieffer has admirably held up Evening News, even growing ratings. ABC's plans for a fast-paced, youthful broadcast with Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as co-anchors were stunted in January when Woodruff was gravely injured in a roadside attack while reporting from Iraq. With Woodruff's return uncertain and Vargas going on maternity leave this summer, the network is still sorting out its next move.

Looking to rejuvenate CBS' operation, CBS Corp. Chairman Leslie Moonves has been courting Couric for more than a year. As Evening News anchor, Couric's challenge is to build on Schieffer's modest gains. While the audience for evening news has declined in recent years, the broadcasts are still enormous platforms. First-placed NBC Nightly News averages about 9.8 million viewers; CBS Evening News, 7.7 million. Ad revenue is still strong. CBS Evening News generated $171 million in ad revenue last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus; ABC collected $185 million on World News Tonight; NBC, $156 million on Nightly News.

Critics, however, have questioned whether Couric, after years of cooking segments and fashion shows, can carry a hard newscast and guide viewers through catastrophes.

On Don Imus' radio show, 60 Minutes' grouchy host Andy Rooney said last week of Couric's arrival, “I'm not enthusiastic about it. I think everybody likes Katie Couric, I mean how can you not like Katie Couric? But I don't know anybody at CBS News who is pleased that she's coming here.”

He must not have talked to Schieffer, who on the Evening News, gushed, “I think, Katie, you're going to love CBS News and we're going to love you.”

“SEASONED JOURNALIST”

That could be. Supporters say the girl-next-door persona that made her a success at Today will click after dark. “She is a very seasoned journalist, a terrific interviewer, and she brings an enormous following,” says former CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

Adds Wendy Walker, senior executive producer for Larry King Live and Couric's former roommate in Washington when both were cub reporters at CNN, “She has warmth to her, and it is important that people feel comfortable with their evening-news anchors.”

While Couric's style stands in stark contrast to some distant, monotone male anchors, her Evening News is expected to follow a traditional format. “Our plan is not to revolutionize what we do at 6:30,” CBS News President Sean McManus told CBS staffers gathered in the newsroom after the announcement.

Couric is also expected to be in the field chasing big stories, and as the newscast's managing editor, she will have a hand in story selection. “It is still an influential role,” says former NBC News President Andy Lack, now chairman of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, “even if the audience is a little smaller than when Walter Cronkite sat in the chair.”

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